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Frankincense - Fragrance of Oman
Global Arab Network - - Andy McDonough
Oman has one of the oldest cultures in the Arabian peninsular having extraordinary periods of greatness in the Ancient World . 
For centuries frankincense was the key merchandise of ancient trade with Greece, Rome, Egypt, China and India, bringing fabulous wealth to parts of Arabia where the aromatic gum resin was produced. The fragrant sap of the frankincense tree is one of the most important products of the Dhofar region in the sultanate of Oman. Entire souqs in Salalah are now dedicated to selling this prized product of Dhofar’s heritage, and other exotic fragrances like bokhur, attar and traditional perfumes

History is rich with accounts of this trade, and the use of frankincense in ancient Roman and Greek religious rituals. Roman fleets and Arabian dhows shipped annually thousands of tons of this most precious of commodities to Rome. Pliny, the best known historian of the time, noted that colossal quantities of frankincense was ordered burnt by Emperor Nero at the last rites of his departed wife.

Dhofar - source of some of the finest frankincense in those times - partook of the glory and riches that it brought. It spawned the rise of ancient cities like the fabled Ubar and Samharam which have since been lost to history.

Yet 2,000 years later, frankincense still remains the centerpiece of Dhofars vibrant heritage. Gulf nationals and foreign travelers, who visit this southern coastal retreat in their thousands every year cart away sizeable quantities of Dhofar’s exotic fragrances.

In Omani homes across Dhofar and elsewhere in the Sultanate, frankincense and other traditional scents are indispensable to the ritual of demonstrating one’s hospitality to visiting guests. Incense burners are passed around so visitors can air them selves in the heady scent of the burning frankincense.

Festive events like weddings, Eid celebrations, the birth of a newborn, and so on, are also incomplete without the burning of frankincense or its exotic versions like bokhur.

Such is the pivotal place these prized fragrances have in the daily lives of Omanis that it has spawned a flourishing cottage industry in Dhofar with specialist blenders each boasting their own secret brand of incense and perfume.

For an insightful introduction to the heady world of frankincense and perfumes, a visit to Salalah’s Frankincense Souq is a must. Built by Dhofar Municipality about six years ago, it features a block of shops dedicated to exclusively selling incense, perfumes and traditional goods. These are run by Omanis who have been in Dhofar’s frankincense trade for generations.

Juma bint Saeed Thowaini, one of the souqs best-known frankincense dealers, learnt the finer skills of the trade from her mother. Her bokhur products are much in demand, coveted mainly by GCC nationals who buy up substantial quantities of this prized incense.

Bokhur-making varies from one blender to another, but the most exotic types include ingredients like oudh (scented wood from India and the Far East), sandalwood, attar, rose water, myrrh, raw perfume oils and a variety of aromatic resins and extracts. These are blended in a certain proportion, cooked together and crushed to form a richly-fragranced powder.

The biggest trade in frankincense and traditional fragrances is concentrated at Salalah’s oldest market, the Al Haffah Souq. Scores of shops here sell the numerous varieties of the gum resin, bokhur and perfumed oils at bargain prices. Also available here is the largest range of incense burners.

For the tens of thousands of Gulf nationals and foreign tourists who travel to this southern coastal getaway every year, Dhofar never ceases to marvel. Its stunning natural beauty, mist-shrouded mountains, verdant landscapes, burbling springs and intriguing heritage sites combine to give this tropical retreat an enduring appeal.

In antiquity, Dhofar, along with the Hadhramaut region of current-day Yemen, was known for the most fabled of treasures — frankincense. Magnificent cities thrived in the wake of a spectacular overseas trade in this aromatic gum, which even drew the likes of the legendary Queen of Sheba to visit these shores in times bygone.

Today, it is not the incense alone that draws an estimated 60,000 visitors to this tropical paradise every year. Salalah, during the monsoon, turns exuberant and infectious, bringing thousands of mainly GCC visitors to experience the unique climate of the region, and its other special delights.

Museum Frankincense
Museum of the Land of Frankincense, comprising a History Hall end a Maritime Hall, officially opened on 23rd July 2007. The contents include finds from different sites, models, maps, photographs, manuscripts and examples of traditional Omani ships. Offices and storage facilities are also housed in the compound. Visitors can tour the site in electrical cars. There are also a number of curio and handicraft shops in the Park which have been set up by the Public
Authority for Craft and Industries.

The Park’s other features include a viewing tower, a viewing platform for watching birds in Khor al Baleed lagoon and the neighbouring khors (lagoons), small boats for children and trips on the khor, a pedestrian walkway along the Khor’s northern bank and a nursery for frankincense seedlings. A botanical garden currently being established will contain examples of the trees and plants of the mountains of Dhofar. Two bridges have been built over Khor al Baleed to provide access to the archaeological site.

At the inauguration of the Museum of the Frankincense Land in Dhofar, the southern region of Oman in which the incense trees grow in semi-desert conditions, government officials, dignitaries and VIPs gathered to celebrate the opening of this long awaited, multimillion dollar facility, taking place in the season of the Khareef, the summer monsoon, when the plains and south-facing mountains are cloaked in lush greenery.

While the temperature in the rest of Arabia rages around 45 degrees Celsius, in Dhofar it’s a cool 22 degrees Celsius, with intermittent drizzle, high humidity and an all-pervasive mist. Not conditions to enchant a northern European visitor, but immensely alluring to both Omanis and visitors from across the Gulf.

The capital of Dhofar, Salalah, receives around 400.000 visitors during this oasis season, with cruise ships stopping on a weekly basis. Naturally, the tourists marvel at the gushing springs, spectacular waterfalls and strange geyser-like blowholes; but also stimulate brisk business at Al Haffa, the frankincense souq, tour the extraordinary archaeological sites associated with the ancient frankincense trade - and it is anticipated - visit the Museum of the Frankincense Land.

The July date chosen for the inauguration of the museum was also Renaissance Day, the 23rd celebration of the accession of Sultan Qaboos. Along with around 150 Omani ministers and dignitaries, and a contingent of international VIPs invited for their significant contributions to the archaeological sites, design and implementation of the museum, I set off for the new museum. It is located in the vast archaeological park of the historic city-port of Al Balid, selected by UNESCO as one of four World Heritage Sites of The Land of Frankincense on the outskirts of Salalah.

Sustaining and cherishing the historical and cultural heritage of Oman has been worthy of an attentive attitude and energetic actions of its Sultan. Thus says Sultan Qaboos:

“The different forms of our national heritage, both tangible and intangible, have always been at the centre of our attention. The reason for this is the important role it plays in the enrichment of our intellectual and artistic life and promoting creativity and innovation in society. We would like, therefore, to express our delight at the inclusion of several Omani cultural and natural sites on the World Heritage List. These sites provide clear evidence of the contribution made by Omanis throughout the ages in building civilizations and in interacting with other cultures”.

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